Making decisions in Pakistan

May 13, 2009

With Pakistan facing a refugee crisis, and its army engaged in intense fighting in the Swat valley, the question of who makes decisions in the country and how these are taken may not seem like the top priority.

But Shuja Nawaz at the Atlantic Council makes a strong argument in favour of deepening institutional mechanisms for decision-making. While President Asif Ali Zardari, who has retained the sweeping presidential powers of his predecessor Pervez Musharraf, made many decisions himself and also personally represented Pakistan diplomatically on trips overseas, the institutional process of decision-making that would allow coordination between the different branches of the country’s government is lacking, he writes. As a result the government seemed unprepared to deal with the million refugees created by Pakistan’s military offensive against the Taliban. 

“If there had been an institutional mechanism for national security analysis and decision-making with a clear central command authority … the exodus would have been anticipated and arrangements put in place to look after the displaced people,” he writes. ”The National Security Council has been abolished. The Defence Committee of the cabinet does not appear to have met to discuss the crisis. And in the absence of a National Security Adviser, sacked by the prime minister in a moment of pique following the Mumbai attack, there is no formal mechanism for studying such issues nor a central point in government to ensure that all parts of the administration work together to anticipate problems and resolve issues.”

“A highly personalized decision-making process remains in place, informed in some cases more by anecdote than by analysis. Most exchanges on military issues take place directly between the President and the Army Chief. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is often by-passed. Coordination of the fight against the militants between Interior Ministry and the military is desultory at best,” he says.

“The army, still unequipped and untrained for counterinsurgency, may yet be able to clear the Swat valley of the militants. But, as a senior military officer confided to me, the army will be unable to hold the territory indefinitely. Providing governance and justice is the civilians’ job. And there is no evidence of civilian institutions or a police force to do the needful. So the Taliban may return to fill the vacuum, as they did before.”

By most accounts, Pakistan faces a long war if it is to take on the Taliban while also rebuilding shattered communities and bringing much-needed economic development to its north-west.  But success in long wars tends to depend more on logistics than on leadership. It will be interesting to see how well Pakistan develops the institutional mechanisms needed to provide those logistics.

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